It is an old if much deliberated adage that sport and politics should not mix. But when it comes to geopolitics, global events – particularly in the past few years – have demonstrated how difficult it is to separate the two, with major sporting events coming under close scrutiny.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in ongoing debates about the impact of the war in Ukraine and its implications for those involved in global sports events. This has generated discussions and even controversy across the full spectrum of stakeholders in the sports sector – from host countries to organising bodies, media outlets to bloggers, and businesses to non-governmental organisations.
The debates range from the very practical impact of the war – such as physical barriers to Ukraine’s participation (ranging from the destruction of training facilities in Ukraine to the loss on the battlefield of many of its sporting figures) – to the question of whether Russia should be allowed to take part at all. For businesses, as we have already seen over the past 15 months, their stance over this issue – for example with respect to their sponsorship of events – may carry reputational risks.
To ban or not to ban
The World Athletics Council, the sport’s governing body, in March 2023 reaffirmed the decision it had taken in March 2022 to exclude athletes from Russia and Belarus, as well as support personnel, Member Federation officials and officials who are citizens of both countries, from all World Athletics Series events for the foreseeable future.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has not followed suit, instead issuing recommendations in late March 2023 about the conditions under which Russian and Belarusian athletes may be able to participate in international sports events. Among these recommendations are that athletes with a Russian or Belarusian passport must compete only as “Individual Neutral Athletes” and that no teams of athletes with these passports can be considered. The recommendations also include bans on athletes or support officials who actively support the war, or who are contracted to the Russian or Belarusian military, or national security agencies.
But the IOC’s stance has attracted criticism from multiple quarters – not least from Ukraine, which has threatened to boycott the Paris 2024 Summer Olympics, as have athletes and sports bodies from across Europe, if Russian and Belarus athletes take part. Ukraine has also provoked controversy within its own sporting circles, following the government’s issuing of a decree under which the country’s national sporting federations will be stripped of their status if they allow Ukrainian athletes to participate in events in which Russian or Belarusian nationals are also participating. The IOC has criticised the decree, saying that it will do little to impact the war.
The IOC has also echoed a March 2023 statement by the Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC), which expressed its concern at the statements from governments urging a boycott, describing calls for a ban on athletes as “direct interference in the autonomy of sport” and “a clear polarisation of sport”. The ANOC also noted that there are currently more than 70 wars, conflicts or crises active in the world, but that National Olympic Committees in the countries affected do not ban their athletes from participating in competitions. Its message is that the war in Ukraine should not be treated differently.
Boycotts of sporting events are of course not new, one of the most prominent being the US-led boycott of the summer Olympic games in Moscow in 1980, following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Soviet Union followed suit by boycotting the subsequent summer games, held in Los Angeles in 1984. Less remembered today is the 1976 boycott of the Montreal summer games by nearly 30 African countries, in protest at the decision not to ban New Zealand from participating after its rugby team toured apartheid South Africa.
Short of full boycotts by teams, diplomatic boycotts have also occurred – take, for example, the decision by governments including from the EU, the US, India and Australia not to send ministers or officials to the China 2022 Winter Olympics, some citing the country’s human rights record.
But rarely have boycott deliberations been played out against the backdrop of a conflict that, 15 months in, remains such a key driver of geopolitical risk. And with the war in Ukraine likely to persist well into 2024, the issue will remain in the spotlight as Paris prepares to host the Olympics. This will potentially pose reputational risks to participants and sponsors alike as media (and social media) scrutiny on these decisions intensifies.